From the top of a mountain we can see far and wide. We can see the land and the sky. Standing at the meeting point between heaven and earth, for many, is a mystical experience. To climb a great mountain, we must train ourselves and prepare supplies, plan a route, and perhaps even assemble a team. There are many challenges, but as long as one step follows the next the summit will eventually be reached. Some peaks are majestic, others are more modest. Even climbing to the top of the ridge behind our monastery, a mere 60-minute hike, carries the risk of meeting bears or twisting an ankle far from a paved road, but still we climb to enjoy the view. The world is too beautiful and life too short to pass up such an opportunity.
Upekkha is the 10th and final parami, or quality of a great spiritual being. While upekkha is usually translated as equanimity, the literal translation means “to look over.” So upekkha can be thought of as, “[Climbing] the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.” (Nhat Hanh 1998, 10) When our perspective is vast, our trials and tribulations can be seen alongside our blessings and delights, rather than dominating our view and obscuring everything else. Then we see the immensity of the sky and regain our inner space.
Like climbing a mountain, we must train ourselves in equanimity. The basic mindfulness practices of awareness of breathing, pausing thoughts, and looking deeply to understand reality is the training ground. Courage, having a great heart, is needed to both climb a mountain and to cultivate equanimity. Upekkha is the 10th parami because it requires all the others as well. We must be generous (dana) with ourselves and especially with those who hurt us to choose equanimity when faced with pain. We must know our virtue (sila) to withstand criticism and abuse, remembering that retaliation cannot bring the relief we seek. We must renounce (nekkhama) fleeting pleasures to know the lasting peace of equanimity. We need wisdom (panna) to recognize the path of equanimity amid the worldly ways of self-defeating habits. We need great energy (viriya), patience (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), and resolve (adhitthana) to continue to cultivate equanimity once the initial inspiration wears off and we are face to face with the layers of reaction and projection that lie between our current mental state and lasting equanimity. And finally, we must bring great kindness (metta) to our practice of upekkha, for equanimity without kindness easily turns into indifference, the opposite of the warm and open steadiness of upekkha.
This is why my teacher, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, translates upekkha as inclusivity. To include all beings in our care and concern, we cannot be bound to preferences nor can we reject anything or anyone. This often feels like a paradox. How can we include all beings in our hearts without becoming victims of the violence, abuse, and discrimination that run rampant in the world? If we accept what we dislike, won’t we become passive and weak? These questions often arise at our retreats. Fortunately, true equanimity makes us strong, not weak. Habitual thoughts that fixate upon, “How can I make this better for me? How can I avoid pain? How can I hold on to pleasure?” are natural. We have evolved to value security and self-protection. These thought patterns keep us alive to pass our genes from one generation to the next. But self-protection doesn’t bring the emotional rewards we expect. Avoiding pain and grasping after pleasure becomes very tiring after a while. Given that we cannot control the universe, holding on to preferences and trying to adapt our environment to suit those preferences is actually quite tiring and stressful. This may sound obvious, but most of us spend the majority of our lives doing exactly this. I know that my suffering is caused by my preferences and that peace comes from equanimity, and still I hold on to most of my preferences. But little by little, they’re loosening.
Upekkha requires that we both welcome and let go of everything. Without welcoming, equanimity becomes nihilism, rejecting all pleasure and closing oneself to the world. Therefore we only need to let go of attachment and aversion, the reactions that I call stickiness. Imagine someone lamenting that the sun has set and having to wait through several hours of darkness before they can see it again. Anyone can see that this is pointless suffering. Enjoying the sunset is not the problem. This is the welcome. Getting upset because they want it to last longer is the stickiness. Letting go comes from relaxation, not rigidity. So the Buddha teaches us to welcome the rain and the sun, tears and laughter, birth and death, and then to let it all go. Developing this kind of awareness cannot be forced, but when we become intimate with silence and with our own breath it eventually appears.
Like standing on a mountaintop, equanimity allows us to transcend our habitual thinking. We don’t ignore the details of our lives but we hold them in proper perspective. We stand between heaven and earth, in both the historical and ultimate dimensions. Far more than a stress-reduction technique, we are fully alive to both our physical manifestation and also to our boundless, infinite existence. We are both, and more. Upekkha and all the paramis allow us to experience this vastness.
Whether the peak is majestic or humble, we can enjoy it as it is. We can also enjoy the whole journey, going up and down, for it’s hard to live on a mountaintop. When upekkha sinks into the foundation of our being, the ups and the downs are as beautiful as the view from the top. When we fall away from the path, we take care of our scrapes and bruises and then continue. Watching the breath come and go, we learn that all things come and go, even equanimity. I am still bound by preferences and opinions most of the time, but I also have moments of boundless welcome and release. Even a moment of equanimity is already freedom. Will you join me in this training? The world is too beautiful and life too short to pass up such beauty.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. 1998. Teachings on Love. Berekely, CA: Parallax Press.